Here in the Boston area, we've all been shaken by the news that a known sexual offender raped and molested children for years at a daycare just north of the city -- even babies. It's beyond horrible. For those with a child in daycare, this story is especially terrifying. You can't help thinking: Could this happen to my child?
Ultimately, the sad truth is that we can't always stop these things from happening. That's the thing about sexual predators like this guy: they are remarkably good at hiding what they do. They choose and groom their victims well. They seem like really nice people -- so nice that the people around them either don't suspect anything, or brush aside their suspicions.
There are, however, things that parents can do to help prevent sexual abuse -- or any abuse -- at daycare.
Do your homework when choosing a daycare. I mean really do your homework.
• Make sure the daycare is licensed and talk to the licensing agency to find out the licensing history and whether there have been any problems. The National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Childcare and Early Education has a database with licensing and contact information for all fifty states.
• Find out about every single person who might come in contact with your child (this is especially important at a family daycare, where it's not just employees that are around). Ask about background checks. Anybody who is spending time with your child -- especially if they will be alone with them -- should have a background check.
• Get references, Google the daycare and otherwise try to find out what people know about it.
• Visit when children are there. Spend some time, get a sense of the place, see all of it.
• Ask detailed questions about how and where the children spend their day and who is with them at each moment.
This may seem like going overboard, and you might feel rude doing it. Who cares? This is about your child's safety. If there is anything at all that doesn't seem right to you, don't send your child there.
Keep doing your homework. Once we've made a choice, it's human nature to want to believe that we were right. But sometimes we aren't -- and sometimes things change. So keep your antennae up. Keep asking questions, especially if you notice a new person or a change in routine. Definitely ask questions if something odd happens, like your child's clothes have been changed or there is an unexplained bruise or scratch. Get to know the other parents, and keep in touch with them; if someone leaves the daycare, call them and ask why. Make unannounced visits.
Pay close attention to your child. This is probably the most important thing. Ask lots of questions about their day (without being too interrogatory -- you'll scare them). Talk to them about who they spent time with and what they did. If something bad happens they might not tell you -- they might not understand it, or they might have been told to keep it a secret -- but if you are paying close enough attention, you'll notice something different about their behavior, such as sadness, anger, fear or withdrawal. Those behaviors can happen for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with being hurt at daycare, but any change in behavior should be a reason to ask more questions and get those antennae up even more.
To make it more likely that your child will tell you if something happens, you should:
• Talk to your child often. Make it something that you both feel comfortable doing.
• Make sure your child knows the names of his or her body parts (the real names) -- and make it clear which parts are private, not to be seen or touched by anyone.
• Teach your child that no grownup should ever ask them to keep a secret -- and if one does, they should come and tell you. (Which may mean that you'll find out about a birthday present before you were supposed to -- an added benefit.)
The good news is that most of the people you and your child will ever meet are good people, not bad people. It's really unlikely that there will be a sexual predator (or anyone else who might hurt your child) at daycare. Just remember to be alert, and a little suspicious always. The world may overall be a good place (I truly believe it is), but it's always best to be careful and watchful. Especially when our children's safety is involved.
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire